|The Mighty God: The Birth of Christ by Federico Barocci|
Merry Christmas! Today is the Tenth of Christmas. This is a good day to reflect on the fact that the God revealed in the Nativity is a God of surprises. Who would expect the infinite, almighty Deity to manifest himself as a tiny baby, born in a cattle stall with the beasts? Who would have thought that wise and exalted visitors would come to this baby from strange lands many miles away with their rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as we will commemorate in tomorrow’s liturgical celebration of Epiphany?
Nor did the child grow up to be the sort of Messiah that people expected, not even his own disciples: he rebukes Peter, his chief Apostle, with “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) because the man who will become the first Pope can’t accept that the Christ must suffer and die in order to save humanity. And nobody was really expecting what happened on Easter Sunday.
Of course, none of the above should have been a surprise: it was all foretold by the Prophets, as we saw over and over again in the Advent readings and prayers. In other words, he’s a God of surprises mostly because we insist on setting ourselves up to be surprised. But that’s the way we imperfect, broken human beings are: we think we can simply make reality be what we want it to be . . . but God usually has other plans.
We can glimpse something of this stubborn arrogance in the story of two of today’s Saints, Zosimus and Athanasius (n.b. – he is not the more well-known Athanasius of Alexandria):
Zosimus and Athanasius (d.303) + Martyrs in Cilicia (modern Turkey). They were executed during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). According to one account, Zosimus was tortured and Athanasius, a witness, was so moved that he converted to the faith. Both were then tortured but survived and died in peace after being released. They became hermits. (from www.Catholic.org )
The Roman authorities thought that, if they were brutal enough, they would discourage people from embracing Christianity, but – surprise! – seeing the torture of Zosimus instead drew Athanasius to the Faith. And his is not an isolated incident: “The blood of the martyrs”, wrote Tertullian, “is the seed of the Church.” Up to the present day, we see that Christianity is strongest when it is under attack.
We would do well to remember these things when we contemplate the Child in the manger. However bad, even disastrous, things may seem (and in a world insistently moving further away from God, they do), we should remember that the same child will grow up to promise that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18). Prepare yourself to be surprised.